The senior guard scored 26 points in UNC’s first six conference games, shooting a woeful 31.0 percent (9-of-29) along the way. Reserve guard P.J. Hairston had scored nearly three times as many points (73) in 21 less minutes, prompting media and fans to ask why Hairston wasn’t starting or at least playing more minutes.
While Roy Williams has spent the last week answering questions about Hairston, he addressed the other player in the equation on Friday. The first question he was asked about Strickland pertained to the Rahway, N.J. product’s offensive display in Chestnut Hill, providing a platform for Williams to explain his method.
“Everybody thinks [Strickland] played better because he made 6-of-6 free throws and he made two jump shots,” Williams told reporters during his weekly press conference. “That’s what everybody thinks. The fact of the matter is that it was his best defensive game in… pick a number.
“He’s got to keep doing the job defensively. That’s the reason he’s in the game.”
Hairston’s offensive prowess, especially from beyond the arc, is appealing for a UNC team that struggles to score more than most of its predecessors. The sophomore connected on 8-of-10 3-pointers over a 13-minute stretch spanning the N.C. State and Boston College games before suffering a concussion on Tuesday.
There’s more to basketball than just scoring points. While Strickland has struggled to score, due in part to poor shot selection, his strengths lie elsewhere.
“We need him to defend, we need him to not turn it over, we need him to push the pace and if he knocks the jump shots in, that’s great,” Williams said.
There is statistical evidence to support Strickland beyond his points and field goal percentage numbers. He leads the ACC in assist-turnover ratio at 2.83 (4.1 assists; 1.5 turnovers) and ranks 11th nationally.
Strickland gives UNC another ball handler to aid freshman point guard Marcus Paige. Williams has tinkered with his rotation to sub one of his two starting guards out early to allow for an alternating approach at point for stretches.
The 10th-year UNC head coach noted that when Paige subbed out against Boston College, the Tar Heels’ pace picked up due to Strickland pushing the ball.
He also acknowledged that certain players are always going to get more criticism than others in any given year.
“If you take Dexter and put him in the barn,” Williams said, “you don’t have a backup point guard, you don’t have potentially the best defender on your team, you don’t have that guy that can get every loose ball because he’s so tenacious and so aggressive and you don’t have a guy who fits into the big picture of what you need.”
Williams reflected back on the ’04-05 national championship run and how “everybody” wanted Marvin Williams to start over Jawad Williams for half of the year, but he thought it was better for the team to bring the freshman off the bench.
And while Strickland’s speed and lateral quickness has been hindered due his ACL tear last winter, there have been signs of improvement.
“I don’t think he’s the same player defensively at all,” Williams said. “I don’t think that he has that burst, but I’ll say this, he showed it more Tuesday than any game he’s had this year… I thought it was his best game in a long time.”
Sophomore forward James Michael McAdoo elected to brush aside the stats and instead highlight the intangibles that Strickland provides for UNC’s young roster.
“He’s been here four years and he’s played on great teams here,” McAdoo said. “He’s done great things… In the middle of a game, in the midst of us going through a bad spell, he’s really able to calm us down.
“Also, he’s a great player. He may not be playing as well as we want him to, but that’s the same for a lot of guys. I think with his skill and ability the sky’s the limit. We look for him to be a leader because we know he’s been through tough situations.”
Scoring will always be a focal point for both criticism and praise in any sport decided on the scoreboard. Hairston has scored 48 points in his last 46 minutes off bench, while Strickland has needed 203 minutes to reach that same total.
“The scoring part of it is emphasized way, way too much,” Williams said. “It’s like putting together a puzzle. You’ve got to put together all of the pieces. You can’t just leave one out. I think Dexter is a huge part of our puzzle.”
Strickland's next assignment very well could be defending the nation's leading scorer - Virginia Tech's Erick Green - on Saturday.